Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Playing the Disney Discount Game, Part III: Is Free Dining Really a Good Deal?

One question I hear a lot is whether or not free dining is a good deal.  If you're a Disney discount hunter, you probably the know the answer is "It depends."  And it depends on a lot of things: Where you're staying, how many people are in your party, and perhaps most importantly, how do  you normally eat and tour the parks?

Last night one of my clients wrote to let me know that they got a pin code. A pin code, for the uninitiated, is a code personal to you that gives you certain discounts. These discounts come directly from Disney and are often for percentages off rooms or for free dining.  They're usually a better deal than what's available to the general public and often a preview of discounts that will be available later in the year to everyone else.  In my client's case, her pin code was for free quick service dining at a value resort.   They were already signed up for the regular/plus dining plan, so it wasn't a question of whether or not they would use it.  When I applied the code, I was shocked to see that it saved them around $600 off their trip, several hundred more than the room discount they previously had. That's a nice savings. 

As noted above in their case, they already had a discount for a certain percentage off their room at Pop Century. Since you can't combine discounts, they paid full "rack rate" for the room, but it was still a better deal.  They're traveling with two children, one of whom is over the age of nine and therefore a Disney adult, so the plan costs around $150 a day.  The room discount at the values is almost never as good as free dining even when only the quick service plan is offered; remember, you can pay a few dollars more and upgrade to the regular/plus dining plan, which is what my clients did. Even if they were only traveling as a couple, free dining is a better deal at this resort.

The waters get a little murky when you move up from a value resort. This is particularly true at the moderates where the better deal is often a matter of a few dollars either way based mainly on how many people are in your group.  For example, a family with three kids over the age of nine plus two parents will pay $229.95 a day for the regular/plus dining plan. There's no way you'll ever get a moderate discount that's better than that. But if it's only two adults, depending on the season, the better deal could go either way.

In the past, the general rule was that room discounts at the deluxe resorts are better than free dining because these rooms can easily run $500 or more a night, but that's no longer the case the case. Recently, deluxe discounts at some resorts have been no better than value discounts. For example, the Grand Floridian was previously discounted at 25% off, the same as the values.  Most of the other deluxe resorts were 35 to 40% off. This means you'll need to know the exact discount offered at the resort you're interested in.  Don't just assume that an ad that reads "40% off Deluxe Resorts" applies to your resort as well; read the fine print and make sure your resort is one of them.  Finally, the same rule that applies at the values and moderates applies at deluxe resorts as well:  The more people in your party, the higher the chance that free dining is better for your wallet.

So how do you figure out which discount is better for you? You'll almost always have to run the discount both ways:  Free dining vs. the room discount.  Don't hesitate to ask your travel agent to run your quote for any and all discounts--that's what they're there for.  In fact, a good travel agent won't have to be asked!  If you're going on your own, ask the Disney cast member when you call to do the same. I say this all the time, but it bears repeating:  Be aware that when you call Disney directly, they frequently won't run discounts unless asked, so make sure you're armed with the latest discount information before you call.  If you're using the Disney website, information on discounts is often listed at the bottom of the website.  I tell people to run a full-priced quote first so that they can compare it to their discounted offer.

While the above information is universal, the next question you have to ask is entirely a personal one:  Will you actually use the plan? If you're a light eater, possibly not.  If you're the type of guest who goes all day and doesn't want to stop, or if  you have small children and you don't feel comfortable scheduling a lot of sit-down restaurants, the idea of being tied to a dining plan which requires you to stop what you're doing and eat may be too much of an interference. Personally, I need a nice sit down meal every day at Disney. I like the food and I like the break, but not everyone tours the parks that way.  Finally, being on the dining plan means you'll need to make at least some of your dining reservations months ahead of time. Not everyone likes planning their meals that far out!  So take a look at how you travel. If you're like me, the dining plan can save you money. But if you're a more "commando" guest, it might not.

Good luck and happy hunting!

Booking a Disney vacation?  Email me at ChrisW@pixievacations.com for information on how you can receive a free $50 Disney gift card when you travel. This is on top of current Disney discounted offers.  As always, Disney travel agents do not charge for their services.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Playing the Disney Discount Game Part II: Making Discounts Work.

Boardwalk quiet pool with view of the Dolphin Resort.

Today is kind of unusual because it's the day after current Disney World discounts ended and there are no major discounts available at the resort.  This doesn't happen that often anymore. This is because in recent years, Disney has regularly released discounted rooms and free dining promotions, so we anticipate that a new group of discounts will come out soon, possibly sometime next week (and if you're betting, bet on Tuesday, the day Disney usually releases discounts).   When discounts are released, there are two things you should keep in mind:  One, getting the discount as soon as possible since they are limited; and two, finding out which discount works best for you. Free dining may seem like a great deal, but if you're a light eater, it might not be. Likewise, a room discount at a value resort with four guests staying in the room is worth a fraction of what you'd save if you got free dining. 

If you take one thing from this post, remember that you can book a room and apply the discount later. This secures your room and saves time when you transfer to a discount in the future.  When discounts are announced, hold times can approach two to three hours, so having your room and information in the system gives you some security and speeds up the process.  It also guarantees that you'll have a room regardless of what happens.  You can apply discounts to either full-priced rooms or rooms for which you've already recieved a discount, but you can only receive one type of discount at a time.

I work under the assumption that any discount is better than no discount, so if there's a discount out for your travel dates, take it.  You can't predict what Disney will do in the future, but if something comes out later that works better for you, you can change your room to that discount code.  For example, I currently have several clients who've booked room-only reservations for late spring and early fall.  These are good discounts, saving them around 20 to 25 precent off rack rate, but since these clients are annual pass holders, we're waiting on AP discounts which will save them anywhere from 10 to 15 percent more. Once these discounts are announced, I'll simply switch them.

A few caveats to remember when you switch discounts:

1)  All discounts are limited so you or your travel agent should apply them the day they come out. This is particularly true of free dining promotions which will sell out very quickly and are part of the reason for the two to three hour waits I mentioned above.  If you're working with a travel agent, it's her job to provide this service to you, stay on top of these announcements, and apply the ones that work best for you. You shouldn't have to ask. 

2)  Don't do this stupid guest trick (and yes, I'll admit to doing this years ago):  Never cancel one discount booking until you're sure you can get the new one and that it meets your needs.  Run all the numbers and remember that all discounts have end booking dates. The latter is especially important because you can't go back and re-book under that promotion once it's over.

3)  For packages, you can change your reservation and discount code up to 45-days before travel without penalty.  If you change your reservation within the 45-day window, you'll be charged a $50 change fee, but if you save more than that, it's worth it.  For room-only reservations, you may change up to six-days before you travel, so you have a little more freedom to change without penalty. If you do change within the penalty period, you'll be charged a $50 change fee.

Next, consider what type of discounts work for you and your travel party.  Discounts usually come in two forms: Room-only or free dining.  Often, these offers are out at the same time. Don't assume one is better than the other or get swayed by the language of the offer. Instead, have Disney or your travel agent run all discounts that are available during your travel time.  Pay attention to the small details. It's easy to get swayed by a promotion like "Kids Stay and Play Free" until you realize that kids staying with their parents always stay free. While the "playing" part of the promotion is a great deal, allowing kids 3-9 to visit the parks for free with a paying adult, it still might not be as good as a room-only discount at a deluxe resort. It really does pay to take some extra time to compare every deal.

One final word.  Always make sure that you ask Disney what discounts are available when you call.  You need to let them know that you're interested in booking under these codes. You don't need to know the specific code, but you do need to ask outright what discounts are available.  If you're on the Disney site, these can be hard to find and sometimes it can be difficult to discern, even when you think you've found one, whether or not you're actually getting a discounted offer.  For this reason, I always advise people to run the full-price package first so can compare.

Next up, I'll look at whether or not free dining is a good deal.

Email me at ChrisW@PixieVacations.com for information on how you can get a free $50 Disney gift card when you book a new Disney vacation worth $2200 or more. This is in addition to current discounts.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Disney World Discount Game, Part I: Types of Discounts.

It's a Friday before current Disney World discounts end (specifically, on March 27th), which means there's a great deal of speculation out as to what the newest discounts will be. If you're a frequent Disney guest or you're just being budget conscious, you've probably played what I call the Disney discount game:  Searching the Internet or asking your travel agent for discounts, booking and re-booking, to save the most money.  The game can be fun when you find a great deal, but it can also lead to a lot of frustration.  Here is first part of a three-part series on Disney discounts.

There are five main types of discounts: 

1)  General public discounts.  The most common discounts released by Disney, they're available to everyone and are usually in the form of resort room discounts or free dining. Watch for black out dates and booking periods. Most often, these discounts are available during slower times of the year, so don't expect to see this type of code during Christmas break, Easter break, or mid-summer. 

2)  Annual Pass discounts.  These are room discounts available to annual passholders. These usually come out weeks or even months after the GP discount for the same time period.  Most often, they are for 5 - 10 percent higher than GP discounts, but they're also offered for a much more limited number of rooms so book when they come out.

3)  Pin Codes.  Pin codes are the stuff of legends on  Disney message boards because they can be pretty difficult to get.  Briefly, a pin code is a discount code that is personal to you.  You simply go to Disney's website and sign up.  Then, you wait for a code to come to your email or home address.  Sometimes it comes, sometimes . . . it doesn't.  Urban legend has it that you'll be more likely to get a code if you play around with the reservation system after you sign up so that Disney knows you're looking to book a vacation. You can also sign up your spouse and try to double your chances.  If you're traveling with a group, sign up every adult in the group as well, as you normally can book up to three rooms per code, as long as the main person on the pin code is the main contact. 

Pin codes are normally a better deal than what's available to the general public and often a hint of what Disney will release later that year to everyone.  As with the general public codes, make sure you pay attention to black out dates and booking periods.

4)  Military discounts.  Military discounts are, without question, the best discounts available right now. These are available to both retired and active duty members.  If you are a reservist who has served on active duty in the past year, you may also qualify; see your MWR office for details, as these often change.  You'll need to show a military ID at check-in and when you buy tickets.  Room rates average around 40% off.  Right now the current ticket option is for a four-day park hopper for $138 per person (no discount for children), which is a great savings.  Unfortunately, you can't add more days to this admission ticket, but you normally can add water park days.

You can't book military discounted rooms online, so you'll need to contact your travel agent or call Disney directly.  I've found the cast members at booking to be extra helpful with these packages.

5)  Florida resident discounts.  These discounts are available to Florida residents only. They're usually for resort rooms and often, just a few resorts will participate, for example, one moderate and two deluxe resorts. They tend to come out just a month or so before travel.  Don't forget to ask about special park admission discounts during certain times of the year. These are usually in the form of three-day parkhoppers.

Next up, I'll talk about how to play the Disney discount game.

Contact me at ChrisW@PixieVacations.com to find out how you can get a free $50 Disney gift card when you book a Disney vacation over $2400. This is in addition to current Disney discounts.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bad Advice Abounds.


This recent article on CNN.com, The Absolutely Indispensable Guide to Disney World,  illustrates the point that you have to be careful about where you get your Disney advice.  While there's some good advice contained in the article, it's this little gem that I take issue with: 
"Don't even think about paying for parking

When you're shelling out $82 a day for admission, tacking on another $14 for parking can feel like adding insult to injury. I'm proud to say my family hasn't paid for a spot in years. What many out-of-towners don't realize is that the parking lots at Disney water parks, miniature-golf courses and the Downtown Disney entertainment district are absolutely free.

From those locations, shuttle buses will take you wherever you need to go (note that some routes require transfers). Our all-time favorite spot is an unmarked overflow lot across the street from the BoardWalk Inn. Next to a Hess gas station, the lot is almost always half-empty and is a 10-minute walk to the resort.

From there, you can stroll over to Epcot, take a ferry ride to Hollywood Studios, or catch a shuttle bus anywhere else -- all free of charge."

Seriously?  Okay, none of us like paying $14 a day for parking.  You'll get no argument from me there. But if you're staying off-site (on-site guests and annual passholders park for free), it's one of those costs you build into your trip.  Ignore the fact that the author's advice is basically a gray area from a moral standpoint no matter how you look at it.  What really gets me is that this advice is simply impractical!

Let's break it down.  Since there are no buses that go from Downtown Disney to the parks (for this very reason), you'll need to take a bus to a resort and transfer. Because there are fewer buses running in the morning from  Downtown Disney to the resorts for practical reasons (i.e., they aren't needed at that time), you'll probably spend an hour between waiting for the bus and then riding to the resort.  From there, you'll need to transfer to another bus and go to the park of your choice, adding a minimum of 20 - 30 minutes.  This is, of course, assuming there are no long lines of actual resort guests waiting ahead of you. If there are, add another 30 minutes or more to your plan.  The option of parking in the overflow lot at Boardwalk Inn only shaves a few minutes off this scenario, requires a lot of walking on a day when you'll be walking a lot already, and carries the additional risk of your car being towed. But never mind: You saved $14.

Or did you save money?  Because we all know that time is money too and that's particularly true when you're talking about time in the parks.  Now, say you paid $82 for that day's admission and there are four people in your group. That's a total of $328 plus tax.  If the park you want to visit that day is open for 15 hours, that's roughly $22 an hour.  But you just lost 90 minutes minimum due to your convoluted parking strategy and you'll lose another hour or more that might as well.  And even if you manage to pull all of this off before the park opens and after it closes, therefore not technically losing any park time, the reality is, your time is still worth more than the $14 you saved. Do you really want to schlep yourself, kids, and countless bags of souvenirs around after the parks close to save a few dollars?  No, I didn't think so.

I think what this article illustrates for me, besides the obvious fact that paying for parking is a Disney World reality, is that there's a lot of bad Disney advice out there and as a consumer, the first thing you need to be wary of is any article (or guidebook) that declares itself "absolutely indispensable."  In my house, we love the Unofficial Guide. It's an invaluable Disney World guidebook (and a handy doorstopper as well), but I wouldn't call it or any other book absolutely indispensable.  There are so many sources, from guidebooks to message boards, to your neighbors who happen to visit the World every year, that you can, and probably should, get your advice from many sources and then pick and choose what works for you.  Because only you can know what works best for your family. 

And I'm betting it's not spending part of your vacation looking for free parking.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mouse Chat is Going for a Little Run!

If you follow the Mouse Chat Podcast, you might know that last week we got all ambitious and decided to form a group to run Wine and Dine weekend, but since we're not crazy, we're not doing the half-marathon. Instead, we're going to take a nice little morning run through Animal Kingdom. That's right, we're signing up for the 5K. The run takes place at 7:00 a.m. on October 1st and is 3.1 miles long. Disney requires you to keep a 16-minute per mile pace, which is essentially a very brisk walk.

If you'd like to join us, please check out our Facebook page.  It's $50 to run in the regular division, and $55 for the stroller division.  More details on the charity angle, T-shirts, and general tomfoolery will follow. All ages and abilities are welcome and we encourage everyone to dress up in their favorite Halloween costumes. We plan on making this fun! 

So, if you're looking to hang out with other Disney fans or to set a fitness goal for this year, or really, do both, please join us!

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Quiet Corner in Kidani Village.

One way that a Disney vacation is different than most vacations is that there's very little downtime.  How can you possibly relax, or even sleep, when there's so much to do and see?  I'm a willing victim of trying to do too much on every trip, but I've started making it a goal to find quiet spots in Disney World where I can sit and people watch or read a book, even for just a short while. While I doubt I'll ever reach the point where my Disney trips are slow-paced, I've found that taking a short break each day helps slow me down and allows me to reflect on the experiences I'm having rather than allowing my trip to turn into a (admittedly fun) blur.

Animal Kingdom Lodge is one of my favorite resorts. I love the main building, Jambo House, for its incredible theme and energy, but my favorite part of AKL is Kidani Village, one of the two Disney Vacation Club properties attached to the resort. Kidani is smaller than Jambo House, but just as beautifully themed, and what draws me back time after time is how quiet and peaceful it is.  While most Disney lobbies are bustling with energy, Kidani, even during busier times, is calmer; you can actually hear the soft, African music. The low lighting, muted colors, and fun but subtle Disney-themed touches help ease you into the feeling that you're cut off, in a good way, from the rest of Disney property.  It really is its own little world.



Kidani is lucky to have an ideal spot where guests can relax, a small lounge complete with a fireplace and WiFi; it's officially known as the library, but you'll need to bring your own books.  Several Disney resorts have impressive fireplaces; the beautiful stone fireplace in the Wilderness Lodge comes to mind.  But Kidani Village's fireplace, while smaller, has the advantage of being cut off from the lobby, a fact which leads many guests to ignore it completely.  In fact, I've never been in the lounge when there have been more than three or four people in there. 


There are plenty of chairs and couches, as well as a few tables where you can do some work, that is if you can keep your eyes off the impressive savanna view from the floor to ceiling windows.  Right outside, there's a balcony and viewing area as well.


The lounge at Kidani Village is one of those things that Disney does really well, the attention to detail that other companies miss altogether that keeps hardcore fans coming back. It's present in the parks, in the restaurants, and in the resorts.  In this case, it's taking a small corner that most people won't even see and not just continuing the theme that's present in the lobby, but actually going into loving detail with the furniture and artwork to create a cozy spot that you can claim as your own during your stay.  There are so many places on property just like this. On your next trip, I urge you to take the time to enjoy them yourself.

WiFi is now available at all Disney resorts.